A Response To Philip Hensher’s Article

Dear Philip,

I read your article (Some people on disability benefits are fit to work) yesterday and I saw the backlash on twitter. I have some thoughts on it and I wanted to share them, as a disabled woman with both physical and mental health problems who has been through the wringer with the DWP and it’s WCA process plenty of times.
I read every word and upon finishing was struck by two things. Firstly, that whilst apparently arguing for  some form continuing assessments of sick & disabled benefit claimants you were against the Work Capability Assessment in it’s current form. That is something I applaud. I too am against the current WCA’s. I’m very glad to hear you speaking out against them and I would love more voices to join the throng. 
The second is that whilst suggesting that there is some need for assessment you (I assume accidentally) propped up some rather pernicious myths about people claiming disability benefits. I hope you can understand that for many of the people that will have been attracted to read your article that might have made pretty painful reading. I will just go through some of those myths now as I assume you might not be well versed with them.
That there is a high percentage of people claiming these benefits that shouldn’t be.
You devote about 50% of your article to talking about people who defraud the system. I would argue that this is providing false balance to these stories. The DWP’s own statistics show that less than 1% of claims are fraudulent. You are not the first person to cover the issue in this manner (either to make it seem more contentious or exciting, or simply because you believed it to be true because of the media coverage you have ingested) and nor will you be that last. The problem is that many of us are suffering, I personally believe, in a huge part to the false balance given to these stories.
As a wheelchair user I have noticed the abuse I receive in the street has changed over the last few years. It’s no longer about how I look (funny, disgusting) or about how I might be “catching”. Instead it is about how I am probably a lazy, workshy, scrounger and a benefit fraud. People feel free to approach me in car parks and ask if I really need the blue badge parking space or if I just use the chair to get a free car. It’s painful and it’s part of my day-to-day existence. It’s part of many other peoples too. There has been a huge rise in disability hate crime over the last few years. I assume from what you have written it is not part of your everyday life, but I don’t know. When people for whom this is their day-to-day reality read articles like yours they often have an (understandable) emotional response which can vary from sadness to anger. I became pretty despondent personally as what I thought was a very promising piece propped up the “scrounger rhetoric” as many of us call it. I hope you can see that when people in the media spend as much, if not more time talking about scroungers the effects on the vast majority of disabled people 
That mental health conditions are not as debilitating as physical health ones.
The way (or tone) you take when talking about people who claim benefits for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression seems pretty sceptical to say the least. This reader at least felt like you were either ignorant of the how severe these conditions need to be to claim ESA or you were suggesting they weren’t really very debilitating. As I hope you are aware many people who live with mental health conditions are routinely told to “snap out of it” or are treated as if it is something they could just “get over it” with the right motivation and the way they were talked about in your article felt like you too were propping up this myth. I know that many people who responded angrily to reading your article were most hurt by this sentiment.
But, I can’t talk about other people. that’s not my place and those aren’t my stories. I can however talk to you about myself. I have a mental health condition, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in fact. I also have a chronic pain condition stemming from a lot of damage to my abdomen and the nerves within. I have quite a bit of personal experience of dealing with both kinds of health issues. Thanks to the PTSD I can’t manage 15 mins in a whole host of seemingly innocuous environments (for example; being near petrol or the sound of breaking glass) because they trigger flashbacks during which I relive experiences that were so horrific the first time around they left me with a mental health disorder. I would often describe this, to those I would really rather not have a huge conversation about this stuff with as panic. In my experience panic can be as debilitating, if not more so than severe physical pain at times. Panic, fear, terror, fight or flight responses, what ever you want to call it is extremely unpleasant and can govern a persons life. We need to remember that when we talk of claiming ESA for anxiety or panic disorders we are not talking about people who experience panic on a once a month basis, if we were then they would not be getting ESA. We are talking about people who often experience it multiple times daily to the point it may stop them talking to strangers, leaving the house or wearing certain colours. It will also often have physical manifestations such as uncontrolled shaking, nausea, pain & high blood pressure. Someone who can cycle for over 15mins but can’t talk to people without crying and shaking in fear isn’t very likely to be employed. All because it is a mental health disorder does not mean it’s any less likely to be disabling than a physical health problem. 
That some conditions are more worthy than others
You mention obesity in your article and say that “The only possible purpose for public expenditure there is to help them back into fitness for work.” I feel the same way reading this I did when the Daily Mail published it’s bogus article about the parents of lots of children with ADHD being given free BMWs. There is a gulf of misunderstanding when it comes to these statistics which list which disorders people have and what they are claiming. Many people claiming ESA or DLA have more than one condition but the DWP only bothers to record the first condition listed on it’s forms. So, for example someone with ADHD, Obesity & EDS will only be recorded as claiming one of those conditions, possibly ADHD or obesity. It’s hardly ever as simple as black and white as it looks.
I also was disappointed that you used your platform to in many ways make it seem as if obesity (to a disabling enough level one would be able to claim ESA) is a lifestyle choice/moral failing and that people shouldn’t be supported. I hope you realise that obesity is often a side effect of many medications (steroids, beta blockers, anti-seizure medications etc…) as well as medical conditions  either directly (such as PCOS, Cushings & Prader-Willi syndromes) or indirectly by limiting activity or changing diet (such as arthritis & drepression). Even forgetting all of this I personally believe that if someone can’t mobilise, breathe, manage continence of anything else similar then regardless of the reason behind it those people deserve support. If we start deciding what conditions are worthy of being disabling rather than looking at the effects of conditions upon individuals we risk leaving a lot of vulnerable people behind.
I believe that you could have written the same article, which I believe can be summed up as “The WCAs as they stand need to stop but that we should talk about what will replace them that will be fair to everyone”, without using the afore mentioned problematic dialogue.
I’m going to leave it there, because I’m tired of writing and I’m sure you are growing tired of reading criticism. I do really respect you for having tried to take a stand against the WCA’s and I’d love to see you continue to write about these issues in the future but I’d also like it if you could try and consider how you talk about sickness, mental health problems & disability when you do so.  
Warm Regards

[Edited to correct typo]

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  1. Great post and highlights all of the issues exactly. I was very angry last night at both the article and the author's reaction to fairly mild criticism. Thank you for writing this.

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  2. Thank you for writing this piece, it articulates much of what I felt about Philip Hensher's article (and he's a writer I usually like and admire, which made me very disappointed to read something so ill-informed from him).

    The one point I'd like to add is that the article, whether intentionally or not,gave the impression that prior to the Work Capability Assessment, sickness and disability claimants were just left on benefits indefinitely. As anyone who claimed Incapacity Benefit, or its predecessor Sickness Benefit well know, claimants were ALWAYS subject to periodic review, including a medical, and were frequently in receipt of communications from the DWP outlining ways back to work and help to do so. Indeed, I was a beneficiary of just such a scheme in the mid-90s, when I was able to return to work in what was ultimately unfortunately only a temporary reprieve from my long-term health condition.

    The difference between then and now, of course, was that the assessments were more reasonable and humane, and the intervals between assessments realistic. Short awards were granted to those who could reasonably be expected to get better, awards of around 3 years to those with long term conditions of gloomier but uncertain prognosis, and indefinite (note – indefinite – not lifetime) to those with incurable, degenerative or terminal conditions. Now, the system is a gravy train of mostly 12 monthly reassessment fees for ATOS – assessments which don't just make ATOS money and the claimant stressed and more ill, but which cost the NHS time and money in doctor's appointments and reports for claimants. And that's without all the tribunals. If Mr Hensher had done a little more research into the system the current one replaced, he'd have known that too.

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  3. Thank you very much x

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  4. Thank you for adding that important point! x

    As someone who became disabled and went straight to ESA I often forget to mention IB. I much prefer the sound of the old system where re-assessment still took place but at far less frequent intervals (condition depending).

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  5. An excellent article. I'm appalled that people ask you if you really need your blue badge. The idea that anyone would use a wheelchair voluntarily is crazy – they are cumbersome at the best of times and a pain to navigate. I know someone who uses a wheelchair part of the time, so when people see her without her wheelchair they seem to think they've 'caught her out' rather than the reality (which is she has a fluctuating condition).

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  6. Thank you! x

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  7. Thanks for your level-headedness and clarity. Excellent response!

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  8. Excellent post, well argued and clearly yet politely put. I applaud your writing skills and your ability to keep your calm 🙂

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  9. Thank you! x

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  10. Thank you sweetheart. People have been very nice about this which is great. I was nervous about posting it because I'm not a writer at heart x

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  11. thank you for this. People must live in hope that they will eventually recover but they can't if treated like this. Mental Ill health never goes away if someone is Ill treated or demonised. It's such a pity that our Government are such ignorant fools they do not realise this.

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    • diaryofamadman2012
    • January 24th, 2013

    I'm really sorry I only saw this recently. What an amazing and forthright piece of writing. I only wish I were as eloquent as you… Sadly Mr Hensher saw fit to have blogger take down my post (In fairness I did only swear at him once) that's why I migrated to wordpress. Here's hoping he can right his blined views…

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